Now that stay-at-home orders and quarantines are easing (for some of us), we’ve noticed a pattern, both as individuals and as a couple. It’s a pattern we're calling "the quarantine habit hangover."
Just like a real hangover from a night where you had a little bit too much fun, this hangover starts with an earlier attempt to seek short-term pleasure. But unlike the morning after a wild party, this one is more like a three-month daze brought on by all sorts of odd self-soothing habits we needed when it seemed like the world was falling apart several months ago.
Everyone has their own, idiosyncratic list of these habits. For some, it’s a few too many glasses of wine every evening. For others, it’s binge-watching sitcoms on Netflix or getting lost in their Instagram feed for hours on end. For others, it’s downing pints of ice cream or forgetting altogether about that thing called "exercise."
The habits are different. But the reason they started is the same: it was the only way to make it through the nightmare of raising kids, having a marriage, and maintaining a career at the start of a global pandemic.
The problem, of course, is what began as temporary crutch of self-soothing can turn into a more permanent way of being. And that has an impact both on our wellbeing as individuals as well as our ability to stay connected and in sync as a couple.
So how can we begin interrupting our quarantine hangover habits that no longer serve us?
Habit change starts with awareness. Take one of Nate’s odd quarantine hangover habits. To keep himself sane in mid-March, he started binge-watching episodes of the NBC sitcom Parenthood (we know, why would you watch a ten-year-old family sitcom?). This turned into his nightly ritual, his way of retreating to the illusion of living during a more "normal" time. But three months and five seasons later, he took a closer look. What he saw was that this habit no longer served him or our relationship. It started to become a distraction, a way of checking out. And that’s the first step. Simply notice which quarantine hangover habits no longer serve you or your relationship.
Here's the classic habit formula outlined by Charles Duhigg. All habits starts with a cue, a trigger that initiates the action. Then comes the routine: the action you take in response to the cue. Finally, the ritual culminates in a reward, a momentary burst of pleasure or satisfaction. This loop holds our bad quarantine hangover habits in place. But it's also the key to shifting to new habits of wellbeing and connection.
How do you do that? Keep the old cue and reward but insert a new routine. In Nate’s case, the cue was that time around 8pm when our daughter was getting ready for bed. That was his cue to slip downstairs and lose himself in sitcom reruns (the ritual/reward). So he's now introducing a new ritual: going outside, reading a book, or meditating. The result? We have more time and energy for each other.
What are your quarantine hangover habits? And now that the initial shock of the pandemic is over, what are the habits you want to begin building instead?